On the far wall, another map had been placed over the original. This one was a large representation of the states just west of the Mississippi. Dozens of pins dotted the landscape, and they were all red except for six of them, which were black. They designated six small towns in the far western section of the state, just a little south of Omaha. The biggest of the towns I could see was Red Oak. The black dots were nearly a straight line from the west to the east. I had a creepy feeling I knew what they meant.
Dot saw me looking and came over to the map. “Six weeks ago, we lost contact with these towns. On the surface, it didn’t seem like much. We chalked it up to bad communication lines. But they happened one after the other, in succession like you see. What do you think?”
I looked at the map again. “Based on what I have here, I’d say you had a new spreading contagion or a group looking to establish themselves in the Breadbasket of America.”
“That’s what our assessment was, too.” Dot said. “We figured it had to be something that was interfering with communication. And these days, the only thing that could do that was lack of people to communicate with.”
“So what was causing the problem? I assume you sent someone out there to check.” I asked.
“So?” I didn’t like the way she said that.
“So they didn’t come back. Everyone we sent out that way has not communicated with us in weeks, and we’re not sure why.”
Captured or dead. I thought. “Who did you send?” I asked instead.
Dot sighed. “Jane Coswell, Brian Hernandez, and Bill Osbourne. Each one went with ten people.”
I was stunned. I knew all three of them and they were solid, steady people. None of them were likely to screw up a fight or walk into an ambush. I looked back at the map. What the hell was out there?
“Thirty-three people gone.” I mused. I looked over at Charlie and I could see he was as shocked as I was. “What do you want from us?” I asked pointedly. I knew what the answer was and I could see Dot knew that I knew. But I wanted to hear the request, just so I could tell myself I had the right of refusal.
Dot looked at me square in the face. “I need to know what’s going on, John. I need a crew that can look at a situation and know it for what it is. I need someone to let me know if I have to mobilize the army or send in a crack crew to stage a rescue.”
Dot looked away. “I know you’ve done your part for the country, and no one is more grateful than I.” She looked back at me. “I need the best, John, and you and Charlie are it.”
I didn’t say a word. I stared hard at Dot and she matched me unblinkingly. I knew I was going to lose this fight, but big chunk of me didn’t want any part of it.
Finally, I said, “Christ, you don’t make it easy, do you Dot?” I looked over at the rest of my companions. “This one’s not on me. We need to talk.”
Dot nodded and left the room, leaving the four of us to stare at the maps and the pins and what mysteries they represented.
I started the ball. “All right. We’ve heard the pitch and we know what is expected of us. The question we have on the table is whether or not we take up the challenge.”
Charlie looked over the maps then back to me before he spoke. “Something is seriously wrong out there. We know that area, and we know the people that were out there. We know the people that went out there and stayed to settle. None of them could have just been blown over, and none of them would have just up and given up without a fight.” He ran a hand over his knife hilt. “Doesn’t make sense.”
Rebecca spoke next. “We don’t know what happened, or what’s happening. For all we know, whatever is out there is headed this way and we don’t have any way of stopping it.” She walked over to Charlie and held his hand. “I guess my fear is not going out, and then wishing we had when we had the chance to take on whatever it is when it was just starting out.”
I didn’t say anything, but Rebecca had just voiced what I was thinking. While it was easy to say this wasn’t my fight, if it was something that stood a chance of wiping out everything I had fought six years for, how could I stand back and just let it go?
Sarah made the point clearer. “No one says there has to be a fight, all anyone is asking is for someone to take a close look and then high tail it back.” Sarah stood in front of me. “I know what you’re thinking John, and I understand. Whether we like it or, we have to take this one.”
I nodded slowly. “We just figure out what’s going on, and then we bug out. Agreed? We let the ones whose job it is now to fight take care of it.”
The rest agreed and we called Dot back in. It took a minute to fill her in on the decision, and I could see she was happy about it. For a second I thought she might have been worried I would say no, but I was probably wrong.
When we took our leave, Dot asked me to stay behind for a second. I told Sarah and the rest I would catch up with them in a minute. We watched them walk further up the hill for a second before Dot spoke.
“Thank you, John.”
“You’re welcome.” I hesitated, and Dot caught it right away.
“Say your piece, John Talon.” Dot said kindly.
I gripped the porch rail tightly. “Got a bad feeling about this one, Dot. Got a feeling this one is gonna make the rest of the shit I’ve been through seem like a vacation.”
Dot looked out over the river for a long moment before she spoke.